Modern Meets Tribal Art
BENIN:ROYAL ART OF AFRICA FROM THE MUSEUM FUR VOLKERKUNDE, VIENNASkip to next paragraph
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by Armand Duchateau, Prestel, 135 pp., $50.
A sense of unease or simple bafflement that many people express about modern art may come from a feeling that such art often appears to have no point to it.
It is not enough to assure such doubters that a work of art is self-sufficiently its own point, that it has no other purpose than to be what it is. In other words, to those who are baffled by modern art, art cannot be just for art's sake. For them, art must have a purpose outside its own mere existence.
Yet it seems that artists in our century have been convinced that art can be a hermetically sealed world with its own isolated values; that its values are not based on any other system; and that they do not even need the justification of precedent or tradition.
But the very difference of art from anything else is its reason for being - and this baffles some people most of all. For many modern artists, art's chief purpose, if such a word is apt, appears to be to pursue its own liberties, to keep itself free from rules other than self-imposed ones, and above all to question rather than answer.
But the persistent questioning posture of art does, surely, have a certain usefulness. Take, for instance, art vis-a-vis natural science.
The scientist looks for answers and solutions. The questioning artist, unconvinced by the scientist's claims, asks whether science is not actually failing at the first hurdle by ignoring or covering up many of humanity's basic needs as it pursues its own goals.
Art, concerned with freedom of imagination, with the irrational and even the absurd, rather than with measurable goals, suggests that by comparison, it may be science that is a hermetically sealed system.
Art deals in incalculables: emotion, empathy, and even in a humanity that is too often outside the purview, or even the interest, of science - or, for that matter, of other useful systems such as statistical analysis, accountancy, politics, and planning. While all these systems find no possible point in art, art has, somewhat mischievously, no doubt, sometimes invaded their sacrosanct ground and used their methods for its own enigmatic, questioning purposes.
Perhaps, in the early part of this century, this instinctive distrust artists felt about the advancing achievements of the sciences made them turn for stimulus or inspiration to the art of so-called primitive peoples. What could be more undermining to the sophisticated assumptions of science than the unsophisticated, primal potency of an African tribal carving?
Perhaps, on the other hand, the artists felt a kind of threat from the functional and technical achievements of the scientists, and realized that science cast art increasingly into a role of irrelevance.
A small instance of this was the challenge presented to painting by photography. A straightforward realism, a laborious imitation of appearances in paint, started to look pointless in the face of cameras able to reproduce appearances in minutes or seconds.
So, art needed to rediscover something of its basic, primal impulse, and primitive art, previously the exclusive province of anthropologists, was one new source of energy and excitement to which artists turned.
Such works of art were not much concerned with reproducing appearances. Part of their appeal to Western artists was, paradoxically, that they had once had a purpose. It hardly mattered what that original function had been; to Western culture, that function was mysteriously unknown or (better still) so savage as to be positively anarchic.